Block, throw, take a punch—in the north of that soggy isle knowhow came early, but for those from the urban coast of California late to not at all. And this bar fight was not in Santa Monica, nor even on the Strand, where South Bay hodads kept a prowl, but in Glasgow, Scotland, on a Friday night. The nub of pint was thrown aside, and the short, sprung man in Rangers blue stood his ground. Glass hung in Troy’s face. Even through slickers in his eyes he saw the mistake. For brothers at USC curbside brawls were commonplace. And Troy had been known to represent, even to front, against the other frats. But in none of those turfy bouts had a fist flown true, much less a fist wrapped around a bonus like a pint glass. It seemed against the rules. Shove, shout, slap—such were the disciplines he had down. To save face, what face was left, he had grabbed the Rangers fan by the tops of the arms. Now he could only watch the follow-through play out. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” Good form there: shove and shout, shove and shout. Doubts read upon the knotted Scottish face. Before the slap went in, a smile, shy of teeth, overwrote the puzzlement. No moves in defense, only a grab to the arms as Troy himself had done. The shove and shout came back, even the war mask Troy had put up. “Fuck ye! Fuck ye!” Beetling, bug-eyed, awful to behold, and it broke to a cackle. “A didnae know it was a dance.” A shot to the liver brought Troy down. The cheat made for the door as the nearest Glaswegians helped him up. Through the burry thickets of their speech Troy made out care, assurances, offers to call for help. Damp with blood except for clean streaks beneath his eyes, he told them, “I’m so angry I’m crying.” They gave him a pat, but not with caution.
NHS sutures did him proud, or lent a proud shape, when he met up with his two Trojan brothers the following noon. Each eye below the seam was a purple pool. “Damn, nigga,” said Vandersnatch, given name Kyle, who came in an even paler shade of ginger jock than Troy’s. “You look like a panda Frankenstein and shit.”
“The other guy will miss those teeth.” Only fact, an carefully worded to that effect.
“It’s monster,” said Howd, given name Evan. “Panda Frankenstein’s monster.” He was the incomplete idiot of their merry bunch. “Frankenstein’s panda monster?”
“Don’t psychology me, motherfucker,” said Vandersnatch. “I’ll kick your fucking ass.”
Next came the tale, and the shmear Troy spread atop. They were in the Sparkle Horse waiting for burgers to tamp down a raft of stout. A favorite spot these past three days, though not near to the hostel. In quest of smash Troy had gone off on his own, and for the Horse and for his Trojans his legend would go untarnished. There were six other patrons and the three took no glances. Only a pet terrier gave an open scold. In Scotland dogs could go to the bar. That was tight.
Honor sewn up like a glassing, Troy said, “Should have gone straight to Amsterdam.” Six Scots and an Ulster barmaid kept a nod in check. “No, not because of this,” finger to face. “I gave what I got. No, because yo, Dutch. A lot of Playmates come from the Netherlands,” to four plays on nethers. The fourth did not land so he said, “Plus they got the hydro kush. We could cut it short. Hit trains to Newcastle and ride the car boat over.” A place where Troy had never been held no misgiving.
Howd said, “Newcastle-upon-Tyne.”
“No, dude,” said Vandersnatch to both and to none. “There’s that thing tonight.”
“And so many pubs,” said Howd. “There’s one downtown where Robert Louis Stevenson caught syphilis.” True or not, not, there they went. Flip-flops slapped out a tuck to the subway and off. Wood panels, a rail at the foot, stools. A rank of booths stood along the wall to sop the ancient nicotine. It was a British pub all right. A placard gave the date and put its build older than America, but the walls of any local Pizza Hut could brag the same. The soundscape was a burst blister of Europop. Troy’s eye stirred the crowd to size up every man. Height was no indicator. Nor thin, nor happy, nor maudlin drunk. Among Scotsmen there was just no way to know.
The grump grew. To rebuke Troy he switched to whiskey. As he rose for a round Howd and Vandersnatch kept up a seesaw at who might hit what. He pushed against shoulders to the taps. Frightening, but it paid—he heard no gripe save one even-toned “Easy, pal” near the posts. Peripheral vision told him the guy was bald—like a skinhead or some shit. Troy put up a hand to non-apologize.
No blow to status, or to the rest: he had made the counter in one piece. A new barmaid had come on at four, maybe straight from high school, weekend or not. No joke: she had to be seventeen, and she wore braces on her teeth. But she was blond and cute in a pinched sort of way. On meeting his eye she gave a double take, a coy half-smile. Troy had forgotten what his face looked like. He took it the other way.
Scant minutes later his Trojan brothers made note of silence toward the bar. Through the pall came a communal oof and laughter. Troy broke the huddle clutching at his nose. Their booth was on the way to the door. Troy shouted “Bet’s dough” through the nosebleed and the swelling. Down the block he spun afresh. “Skimbhead. Fuck!”
“Give it a yank,” Vandersnatch said, “or it’ll be all janky forever.”
“That’s what your mom said,” from Howd.
Vandersnatch came back rote from a standup who had been dead for twenty-seven years. So said Howd. “Public domain,” Vandersnatch said.
“Dink I shoob?”
“Oh hell yes,” said Howd. “For once I’m with the joke thief.”
“Public domain, jackass!”
The scream drowned out the cartilage pop. “Cunt!” Troy shouted back toward the bar through blocks of ancient stone. “I just said you should smile more!”
“You told a skinhead to smile?” Howd asked.
Grins had broken out. Vandersnatch said, “Sick, dude,” to a fist bump.
“Also,” Howd said, “good use of the local gender-nonspecific. Call it a day?”
“Hells no,” Troy said. “Just spot me some of your Vicodin, bro.”
Did Howd ever, from a fannypack. “A pair for a pair. You’re an animal, Troy. You’re a man of war.” They decided on pancakes to soak it up for the evening rally. Glasgow had a Denny’s. Troy’s Grand Slam tasted like a nosebleed but recruited him.
The manager woke him up. “A’m sorry, pal. There’s nae sleeping rough in here. Here’s a coffee on ra house. An, eh, maybe go wash up?”
Vandersnatch and Howd were giggling in the taxi. Thanks to a fannypack Sharpie meant for tour vandalism a lopsided dog bone had gone to his cheek. Not his forehead. Sutures took up too much billboard space. They showed him the Instagram. “Dude!” Troy laughed—it was funny—but fresh sight of wear and tear, this from a girl with braces, brought him down again.
That thing tonight—Troy had never been clear on just what it was Vandersnatch had them going to. And when the cab let them out he was not super amped to see a velvet rope and a brown doorman. The queue was young and long and armed with glow-sticks. The three took a place at the rear. Vikes had Troy in a state of nonreturn but itching for a nap. Five minutes in, there had been no movement toward the rope, leaving him on playback. The barmaid had warned him, gently at first, and okay, he had gotten loud, and maybe he had said a thing or two, but if there was one immutable law of nature it was that girls never hit, nor so fast, so hard, so very, very well. Scottish kung fu—it sounded cut from a template, like Mexican time machine or Irish toothache. Stupid, Troy said to himself, and reread the word from transcript until he got it right. The segment in front had been joshing with each other, happy enough, even though posh latecomers far, far ahead were let in by the doorman. But forty minutes passed without so much as a glacial creep to victory. They, too, fell quiet—a less surly silence than that among the Trojans, who had come far, fought hard, but tense.
A fidget built, even through the bodhi calm of Vicodin. Troy leaned against the building to bounce in place. The guy right in front of him was tall but spindly and wore chunky glasses. He seemed to be there alone, certainly not with a date. Queer, maybe, thought Troy, who had come with two boys to a dance. The guy turned back to measure the queue, and his eye fell on Troy, to a read of the bruises or the frown he wore under them. On a smirk—simpatico perhaps, certainly not hostile—he said, “Is it time to go?”
Not Scots—that accent was English.
Troy stood up straight, chest first. “Yeah it’s time to go.”
“Oh—hey, pal, I only meant—“
Boarding school twit. Howd had called that accent RP—royal pussy. Troy took a step onto the sidewalk. His brothers watched with interest or surprise—they had said nothing, but he knew they were behind him. The queue had made a turn to watch as well. “Go time,” Troy said to himself, and took off his top to show the rewards.
To a sputter—clampdown on a laugh. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” soft but not so soft as to go unheard. Royal pussy, too, stepped out. To a stance. One foot forward, one back.
Something had gone wrong. Troy regrouped for a thing to say. “Sup?”
And two Scottish lads, thickset, broke off from down the line. Despite a four-century butcher’s bill they stood behind the English. Two more feet forward, two more back, and springy, up on balls. Just like you saw in a ring. Again with the martial arts.
Very wrong. Wadded in a hand, the T-shirt felt damp. On bare nipples Glasgow air fell cold. Flaring out lats, Troy said, “You’re with the redcoat? Wanna see how we do in Hermosa Beach? All that’s gonna happen is my two Trojan brothers here are—”
“Do we know you?”
The voices had come at a distance. Troy dared not look back, even to lay on the stink. Heart dead, knees ailing, he prayed none of it showed through the war mask. But the young Scots began to smile, and they stepped back from the English. “Trojan,” said one.
The other, “Reservoir tip.”
The English had put up two forearms, tight to his face.
Troy found a scoff to put on. Play it through and believe in miracles. “Dork on rye. Hey, where did you go? And why am I in this hospital bed?”
Call it time travel, whatever the ethnicity, but it came with a price. Somebody had shot a pipe up his dickhole. Maybe a nurse, to shrinkage. Or worse, a male nurse, to not enough. On the bedside table there was a penguin in a bow tie and a card that on the outside read GET WELL above a cartoon Jack and fleeing Jill. Inside said more, in Howd’s blocky script: You’re a liability, though dork on rye was pretty good. And Vandersnatch had thrown in another bone, and then a cartoon face with a mouth agape. One arrow pointed there from YOU, and another to the mouth from the lesser knob.
“Assholes,” Troy said, mouth and throat two days dry.
He looked past, to a full ward. Everyone else in bed wore a ventilator. Soon he heard that his mom was flying out and was given the new day of the week. His brothers had moved on to Amsterdam. A nurse had delivered the news, or a lady doctor. He never thought to ask, only wondered if she had seen his dick or maybe touched it when the pipe ran in. What had built before now built again. In the hour before his mother’s bedside cry he stood up. The nearest bay held the last wisp of a man. A glassy squeezebox sent down oxygen. Troy took care with the tube sounding him, squeamish to the core. No fifth play on nethers sprang to mind. At his ambit the line gave a tug and raised his gown and he could go no farther. A stoop brought him close to pale eyes that would not open again, nor turn to any dream of life. He laid hands upon the waste. “I’ll kick your ass,” he whispered. Before a nurse could think to chase him off he gave a nudge—gentle, and no way to wake the dead. “Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.”